Leader Iron Works


HP Leader Engine

1 HP Leader engine running root chopper, 1991.

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5855 Lisle Road Owego, New York 13827

On March 24, 1910, the Leader Iron Works, a two hundred thousand dollar company of Decatur, Illinois, selected the village of Owego, Tioga County, New York to become its eastern distribution center. The Leader company had been manufacturing water supply systems for suburban homes, schools, factories, etc. for at least five years, employing about one hundred and fifty men.

Leader selected Owego for two reasons. The first was for its exceptional railroad connections. The Erie and the Delaware Lackawanna both ran east and west through Owego linking Chicago with New York City and were tied into two smaller railroads that ran north and south. The Owego location would be responsible for all of Leader's business: sales, bookkeeping, inventory, and shipping of its products east of the Ohio River in all states from Maine to Florida. Office operations and personnel in Rochester, New York, and New York City were to be consolidated at Owego, leaving only the salesmen.

The second reason for selecting the village of Owego was twofold. The potential for a sizable site along one of the railroads was outstanding and the attitude of cooperation by the local Business Men's Association was exceptional.

While waiting for the negotiations for a permanent building location, Leader officials leased a lot on the north side, across the tracks from the Erie Depot. They contracted with the Owego Bridge Company to erect a traveling crane for lifting six hundred pound boilers from rail cars and setting them down on a short tract, allowing them to be rolled onto the storage lot.

Within the first month, six carloads of Leader's pneumatic water supply systems, that included the drums, water and air pipes, fittings, pumps, engines, etc. arrived.

Office personnel were temporarily located on the first floor of a rental building known as the 'Ford flat-iron building' at the corner of Fox and Depot Streets. By June, it became necessary to rent the second floor, as business and the need for additional personnel increased.

The following year, 1911, an eighteen by seventy feet sheet iron building was erected to protect the pumps, engines and fittings.

Leader management and Owego Business Men's Association were happy with their alliance. Negotiations began for a permanent site for the distribution complex with potential for a manufacturing plant.

Leader officials requested a free building site of five acres next to a railroad, $5,000 for start-up costs (grading, spur track, water mains, etc.), and another $5,000 toward the cost of the building. The businessmen agreed, providing that Leader would establish a manufacturing operation employing at least fifty men within five years, and that Owego would appear on advertisements with equal billing as Decatur. The Leader officials agreed and signed the contracts, including penalty clauses in the event Leader failed to honor their commitments.

The first site offered was turned down by Leader. It was part of the David farm, east of the village, above the Hollenback brickyard, next to the Erie tracks.

The chosen site was land owned by Gurdon Pumpelly. It was bounded on the north by the Champion Wagon Works and on the east by the Cayuga rail tracks. A simple switch could be laid that would connect all railroads going east and west and north and south.

It took all summer to convince Mr. Pumpelly to sell, much to everyone's frustration. He would not sell a five acre parcel from his large acreage. He finally agreed to sell a strip, fourteen and one tenth acres, that extended west to the raceway used by the electric power plant for $3,900.

Subscription papers were drawn up for the total funds required, $13,900. Over seventy five local people, mostly businessmen, fulfilled their pledges.

The following year, 1912, Leader Iron Works erected a modern fireproof, all brick, fifty by one hundred foot, one-half with two stories, and a full drive-in basement warehouse on a five hundred eighty foot spur or switch track. A gasoline engine powered derrick was located at one end of a ten foot wide platform on the north side where the rail tracks were. A large sign with three feet high letters, 'Leader Water Supply Systems,' ran the entire length of the upper roof, clearly visible to anyone on passing trains. Fire protection was furnished via two inch pipe to all parts of the building, getting the necessary pressure from their own Leader system in the basement.

This Leader facility not only had adequate storage area, shipping rooms, a repair shop, and offices, it had the showroom of all showrooms. Their main attractions were the overhead line shafts, as shown in Wendel's American Gasoline Engines. Salesmen could demonstrate by electric or gasoline power the operations of water pumps, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, etc. Customers and local residents were impressed.

The Leader building was the first commercial establishment in the village of Owego to have its own fire protection, hot and cold water for toilets, lavatories, and showers on all floors and a sprinkler system supporting the lawn and shrubbery. It was considered an honor and privilege to work for the aggressive management under Decatur direction.

Very little manufacturing took place at Owego during this distribution phase. Some minor machining and assembly was performed before customer installation or for necessary repairs. If anything could be done in their small shop that would make it easier for the men in the field, it was done.

Parts for the Leader one horse power engine using Stover cast block style V were sent to Owego for assembly; not on a production basis, but to keep two men proficient on the assembly, disassembly and repair. This little engine was nationally known as the workhorse of shallow well water pumps. Some of these engines have survived over the years and are recognizable by the Owego, New York on the nameplate.

Sales of Leader's products were very good through 1916. But the costs of raw material and labor were rising and the availability of iron was unpredictable. World War I was making a drastic impact on the nation's economy.

Leader's management really liked their operation at Owego and the potential for its growth. They were serious about expanding their manufacturing capabilities in Owego by erecting another building on a part of the remaining nine acres. It was their plan to create a high speed machining and assembly line for the Leader one-horse power gasoline engine.

The Panama Canal was expected to open in 1916, which would allow Leader to ship their products to the west coast by rail from Owego to New York City and then by ship through the canal cheaper than by rail from Decatur, Illinois to the west coast.

However, Leader was forced to make adecisionbyl917. They were bound by contract to build a manufacturing facility at Owego or give up what they already had in Owego plus a $7,000 penalty. The business climate was disheartening to a company experiencing low cash reserves. Leader officials elected to pull their distribution operations from Owego and return it to Decatur, Illinois.

They paid a penalty of $7,000 cash and forfeiture of their facility to the Owego Business Men's Association. A serious decline in sales took place from which Leader never recovered.